Regional Country Favorites; Playing In All Keys

Bob Hempker here with one of many responses we got back from the last newsletter.


You have a great newsletter for beginners but in all due respect there are songs that are necessary if you live in the Southwest part of the country. I’m referring to Bob Wills music such as Faded Love, Maidens Prayer, Time Changes Everything etc plus Hank Thompson’s Wild Side of Life, Green Light, Most of All etc and of course the many songs of Johnny Bush and Ray Price. I’ve played in many places where a crowd would vacate the club if the band can’t or won’t play these tunes.

Keep up the good work and give my best to Bobbye.

Sincerely and Happy Trails,

Jimmy Tomlinson
Western Swing Guild

Jimmy brings up an excellent point and I want to thank him for making it. There are certain songs that are considered standards in different regions of the country. For instance, most all the bands on Broadway in Nashville play a Johnny Bush song called Green Snakes On The Ceiling.

Most of the Johnny Bush standards such as Undo The Right and What A Way To Live would be known by most country musicians of my generation, but I had heard Green Snakes On The Ceiling years ago but had never played it. This was a song that I had to learn. I’m sure this is probably a standard in Texas honky-tonks but I was surprised to see it being performed by almost every group on Broadway in Nashville.

If you’re playing in Louisiana for instance, you probably should know a few Cajun standards such as Diggy Liggy Lo or Big Mamou. The 4/4 shuffle thing is really big in Texas for people to Two Step to. Some of the artists there such as Darrell McCall, Johnny Bush, Justin Trevino, Amber Digby are doing lots of traditional country 4/4 shuffles. So as many of those as you can learn would be beneficial.

Crowds in certain regions like and appreciate the Bob Wills and Hank Thompson type of western swing. Songs such as Roly Poly, Time Changes Everything, Faded Love and Wild Side Of Life would be helpful for you to know.

I’m sure there are songs we haven’t thought of but we’re trying to give you a general list and direction to follow knowing that every individual player will have his own needs.

Every section of the country probably has a local hero who had a hit song or two that everybody knows and wants to hear. So use your ears when picking your repertoire. They’ll be your best guide.

I want to reply to one email in particular. Here is the question.

hi there bob… this is probably the best most practical advice i’ve seen in a long time. really useful stuff. thanks a ton.

can you play all those tunes in ANY key you choose? how about 4 or 5 flats whatever that is or do you stick to G, D, E. A. C etc? the common roots. what is the deal when you play with brass…if ever? the transposing instruments B flat and Eb flat?? does this create problems with tuning/keys what with most guitar based bands playing songs in E…. ?

I would start learning the song in the original key it was recorded in by the artist that made it famous, not some other guys album cut, because the two recordings can vary greatly. Ideally if time permits, learn every song you learn in all 12 keys. That will give you a perfect understanding of the song.

I know this is not always possible but I would learn any song in the original key and maybe two other keys a whole tone above and below the original key. The crux of the matter is that you must play the song in the key that the singer sings it in. Hopefully it will be the same but much of the time, they’re not.

One good example is if a male artist recorded the song and made it famous, but here you are backing up a female singer. I have found that much of the time, but not all the time, a female will sing a song in a key that is a perfect fourth up from the original key. In other words, if the original key for the song was C, the female singer may sing it in F.

It’s good to know how to play in every key regardless of the song. Knowing your circle of fifths can be a life-saver if you suddenly have to play a song in a key you’ve never played it in before.

Horns usually play from C down through all the flat keys. You can be really embarrassed by not being familiar with all the keys.

When I first went to work with Loretta Lynn in 1969, I was a kid and Loretta was in her thirties. Her voice was much higher than what it is now. She sang You Ain’t Woman Enough To Take My Man in the key of Ab. She sings it in G now.

She sang Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ in C#. She sings it in C now. I had to learn it in those original keys back then. I don’t know why but I’ve noticed many female singers for some reason love the key of B. It’s a girl thing.

Sometimes a singer will want to sing a song in a key other than the original recording key but they’ll still want the signature licks played in the song like it was on the original recording. There are certain songs that the signature licks were performed with open strings. In these cases, I come right out and tell the singer that if they want this to sound like the original recording with the original signature licks, they have to sing it in the original recorded key. They can’t have their cake and eat it too.

I used to work with a fiddle player who would take fiddle tunes and play them in flat and sharp keys for practice. When you can play any single song in every key, you own that song. If you want to be an in demand musician, one thing you need to be able to do is to play proficiently in all the keys.

The Tascam GB-10 is a wonderful tool because you can put any song into any key and then learn it. This helps in learning songs in all keys. It’s still a challenge learning one song in 12 keys, but this makes it easier.

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1 Response to Regional Country Favorites; Playing In All Keys

  1. Bobby Lee says:

    Here in North California, the song list would include country-rockers like “Two More Bottles of Wine”, “Ain’t Living Long Like This” and of course Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”.

    Most steel players only know one scale. They move it up and down the fretboard to play in different keys. Playing in Db is as easy as playing in C. It’s just one fret higher. I don’t see any sharps or flats on my fretboard, so I don’t worry about them.

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